Automotive magazines' standard practice is to test a vehicle's top speed. It's one of the least relevant measures made on a vehicle and yet it is also one of the most important. In America no one can access a performance vehicle's top speed, but much is made of a recorded number. Bragging rights, breed dominance and neighborhood pecking orders are aligned based on published top speed. It's the first question everyone asks of a hot car: How fast can she go?
People who love fast cars happily cop to the fact that top speed is just a number, a point of useless, yet potent, comparison. Top speed is inherently irrational.
It's therefore difficult to make sense of my colleague Don Schroeder's death several weeks ago.
Don was the senior technical editor for Car and Driver, the magazine to which I am attached as a contributing editor. He was 35 years old, tall, good-looking, had a crystal-sharp wit and an encyclopedic knowledge of cars. He was the quintessential car guy.
At the beginning of February, Don and several editors were in Fort Stockton, Texas, at a 7-mile high-speed oval, attempting to push a specially modified Mercedes over 200 mph. It was a postcard-perfect day in West Texas, warm and breezy enough to stir the scent of sage into the air. All day long Don had been piloting cars around the circuit, two steeply banked arches of pavement connected by long straightaways. Fort Stockton is old and narrow, barely 30 feet wide on the high banks, with no guardrails. Believe me, when you're traveling more than 160 mph, when the wind and asphalt are bucking the car around, when the g-forces are driving the suspension into the wheel wells, the space between the lines seems vanishingly narrow.
It was the last run of the day. Don had already crossed the 200 mph mark on the first run, but in order to count as a certified test, the speed needed to be repeated in the other direction, to cancel out wind assist and resistance. While the staff set up the radar gun at the end of the back straight, Don disappeared down the front straight.
Don did not appear hurtling out of the high bank as expected. Seconds passed. The vehicle's builder then saw a cloud of dust rising in the distance. Looks of astonishment gave way to expressions of fear. Everyone jumped in the support vehicles. By the time they had made it through the collection of parts on the track, the dust had changed to black smoke. It appeared the car had gotten loose on the high bank, skidded into the desert, flipped end-over-end several times and landed on its wheels. Then it burst into flames.
Don was sitting upright, hands on the wheel. The passenger compartment was largely intact, so much so that the builder was able to open the passenger door, frantically attempting to free Don from the four-point harness. Don's fireproof suit tore free in his would-be rescuer's hands. Then another editor, John Phillips, arrived and emptied two fire extinguishers onto Don's head. John's hands and face were badly burned. The fire drove them back. There was nothing they could do except watch the cremation of their friend and colleague.
It appears Don burned to death. The data acquisition equipment recorded his speed at the time of the accident as 199 mph.
The causes of the accident are being investigated. Possible culprits include everything from a malfunctioning stabilizing system to a wild turkey in the path of the car. Lingenfelter, the Corvette tuner, had a close call with a turkey earlier that morning at Fort Stockton.
Naturally, Don's death has provoked a lot of soul-searching in the magazine business. In all the years that buff books like Road & Track and Car and Driver have been published, no test driver has ever died in an automobile. The closest anyone had come before was Andre Idzikowski, who nearly perished in an accident in France last summer, an accident I witnessed firsthand.
As a cruel coincidence, Don was to be the test driver for a comparison story I arranged in Arizona last week. I had made hotel reservations in his name. When we got to DaimlerChrysler's proving grounds outside Phoenix, there was a security badge with his name on it waiting for him. Not knowing how things would turn out, I had brought a driver's suit and helmet to Arizona. And I was filled with dread and apprehension.
As it happened, another engineer stepped into Don's shoes, and in the interests of safety, we dispensed with the top-speed run for our measured comparisons. Yet, interestingly, there has been very little talk among the journalists I know of eliminating top-speed runs altogether. It really hasn't even been considered.
Why? I think because true car guys dwell in a space beyond status-seeking and neighborhood bragging rights. Car guys see the automobile less in its performative definition as transportation and more essentially as a machine. Car guys love machinery, the harmonies of cylinders and wheels, the evocative math of torque curves and spring rates and lateral g-loading. We are fundamentally curious about the limits, the boundaries that constrain any mathematical formula.
A well-made automobile is a spark of divine inspiration frozen in steel and glass. Car guys are compelled to understand it. This is a wonderful, sensual, exciting curiosity that consumed Don to the last. He did not die needlessly. He died superbly well.